NEA Literature Fellowships

Regina Ochsner

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(2006 - Prose)

From the novel-in-progress The Persuasion of Water

We lived in a town just north of Rostov-on-Don, that great gateway city of the Russian south. Summers were hot. The clouds, heat frazzled, gave up on rain and drifted empty across the wide sky. There was never enough water to convince the dust to settle. Standing roadside, I learned to read, by the shape of the dust clouds and how long they hovered, which kind of vehicle was approaching and how fast. A bicycle meant a thin ribbon of dirt shot out behind the back tire. Smaller vehicles like a Niva or a Lada, churned up a loose swath of dirt. The Volgas, popular with the K.G.B., raised the road in a box-like pattern, each shifting of the gears producing a tighter cloud in its wake. But the KAMAZ and GAZ-66 transport carriers plowed the whole road up into the air, lifting the leaves of the willows and weary aspens and coating them in distinct layers of ashen colored earth. The Gas 66s were almost always designated as Cargo 200s, which meant they were stuffed with the bodies of dead Russian soldiers. When they passed, we all stood a little way back from the road, out of respect and in recognition of the fact that we did not want anything that had touched a Cargo 200 - not even its dust - to touch us. An impossibility on our street, where Mother and Baba swept the dust from one end of the flat to the other, which was how people cleaned in summer time.


I was seven when the trouble in Afghanistan heated up. Father left town in a KAMAZ headed for the Rostov Military airfield. Everybody watched the convoy roll by, and listened to the grumbling of the engines rattle the fine china in our cupboards. Mother worked extra hours at the bureau in Rostov, re-writing events so that the human heartache she encountered daily would sound as if it were happening to imaginary people living in far-off places. She hated that job. Truth, she confided to me one day, was a dark stain and the words of any language were like leaves: one more way to hide ourselves from one another. The truth, she said, was that people born under the Soviet Red Star were doomed to move the earth with their feet, carrying their homeland from place to place. Not so long ago, she reminded me, the Chechens had been moved from the Caucasus to Kazakstan and the Tatars from the Crimea and the Germans from the Volga. All these people rewriting the roads with the soles of their feet -- no wonder everyone looked so tired. "Yes," Mother said, as she laid her cool hand on my forehead the same afternoon when the sonic booms broke our plates in half. "Roads are unlucky." And I knew she was right. After all, a road had taken my father from us.

Regina Ochsner was born and raised in Salem, Oregon. After graduating from high school, she attended George Fox University, a small Quaker college located in Western Oregon.  After all attempts to start an all-female football team (The Fighting Quakers), she left and attended Iowa State University where she was thrilled to discover that the population of pigs outnumbered that of humans three to one.  She enrolled in the writing program and also Russian language courses.  Owing to the fact that she flunked Russian three times -- an unheard of achievement that launched her to near super-star status in the Slavic language department -- she turned her attention to martial arts, where she had the privilege of getting her ass kicked three times a week (four, if she paid extra).  Eventually, she decided that enough was enough.   She moved back to Oregon where she settled down with her husband, Brian.  Between the two of them, they have four children and most of her time is spent wearing earplugs and making sure the kids don't terrorize any of the neighborhood cats or dogs.  With her remaining spare time, she tries to write as much as she can and as much as the family can tolerate.  Recently a book of stories People I Wanted to Be was collected and published by Houghton Mifflin.

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

I was nervous about applying for a grant from the NEA. I had tried several times before without success and each time I received news that my material had been passed over I interpreted that as a sign that my work was not worthwhile, that my continuing to write was a silly and vain pursuit. But last year I decided to give it one more shot. Then, as I compiled the application and tried to select a story to submit, I felt once again, sheepish and hesitant. The only stories I had were set in places far away, places I hadn't lived in and didn't know as well as I would have liked. In nearly every writing class I had taken in the past one of the standard pieces of workshop advice was "write what you know." Terrible news for me - a person who doesn't know anything at all! Can a writer write in a voice that is unlike his or her own and still write something authentic, a story that was worth the journey for both reader and writer? Can a writer inhabit a skin she wasn't born with? My gut told me the answer to both those questions was "yes," but I couldn't answer with confidence. And then one night the phone rang. I had a migraine headache - the fifth one that week - and I thought, "oh great - it's a tele-marketer," and I grimaced as I picked up the phone. But, of course - of course - I'm so glad I did because it was Amy Stolls on the other end, delivering to me news I thought I'd never hear. After I hung up the phone I sat in the rocking chair, my head reeling. I felt a mixture of elation and strange calm. The heavens had opened and something wonderful and unexpected had happened and I am overwhelmed with gratitude that of all the many many worthy, talented, inspired applications, this time my name was among those drawn. I am humbled by this. I'm learning a few lessons, too. Persistence does pay off. I'm going to stop listening to that inside voice that says, "Who are you kidding? It'll never happen to you." And I'm going to remind myself - and tell other writers, too - that there will be times when the heavens open and we hear the good news we long to hear. There will also be may times when the doors and windows fasten shut - perhaps for what feels like an eternity. Either way, yes or no, the news is no reflection on the quality of the writer or his or her writing. In no way would a rejection be a sign that that any one should give up for good. It means simply means keep trying. A "no" is a "yes" waiting to happen.